Editor’s note: This is part of a weeklong look at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2019, focusing on plays, moments or defining characteristics of the inductees. Induction is Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
The injury occurred on a routine screen pass. Kevin Mawae was in the open field, looking for someone to block — and that someone was a San Diego Chargers linebacker. The fingers on Mawae’s right hand got tangled in the linebacker’s face mask, causing them to bend at an awkward and painful angle.
Mawae fractured the fifth metatarsal in Week 2 of the 2004 season, a potentially devastating blow for a center who uses that hand to snap the football. This was akin to an artist getting his painting hand stuck in a doorjamb.
What happened over the following six weeks epitomized Mawae’s stellar career, which included eight Pro Bowls, six All-Pro selections and a place on the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2000s. Demonstrating toughness, determination and uncanny skill, he played with a cast on his right hand and learned how to snap left-handed. He was a southpaw for five games, helping the New York Jets to a 6-1 start.
It was his version of the game “Left, Right, Center.”
He used the Week 3 bye to reinvent himself for the Jets’ pivotal Week 4 showdown against the Miami Dolphins, which extended his consecutive games played streak to 158. Except for one goal line play, when he swapped places with left guard Pete Kendall, Mawae played center and used his left hand for the entire game. The Jets won 17-9 on their way to a wild-card berth, a season highlighted by Curtis Martin’s rushing crown.
Mawae blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher in 13 of his 16 seasons, including Chris Johnson’s epic 2,006-yard season for the Tennessee Titans in 2009, but there was something special about 2004.
At 31, Martin was supposed to be on the downside of his career during that 2004 campaign, but he became the oldest player to win a rushing title, with 1,697 yards — the highlight on his résumé for Canton. Unbeknownst to the public, quarterback Chad Pennington had played with a torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder yet still managed to excel.
And, of course, there was Mawae’s righty/lefty switch, which still amazes to this day. Here’s a look back at his memorable sleight of hand, through the eyes of teammates, coaches and an archrival:
‘I’m going to play’
Doug Marrone, Jets offensive line coach: “He broke his hand and they were going to have to put him in a cast, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh, my God, he’s not going to be able to snap with his right hand!’ I said, ‘What are you going to do?’ He said, ‘What are you talking about? I’m going to play.’ At that time, he took a lot of pride in his consecutive starting streak.”
Jason Fabini, left tackle: “He wasn’t going to let that go.” [Laughs]
Mawae: “I did it because I love the game and I didn’t want to let my teammates down. Apart from me having surgery or being maimed, I wasn’t going to miss a game. That’s the mentality I had. I was hell-bent and determined that I wasn’t going to miss that game with a broken hand.”
Marrone: “I remember he said, ‘I’m fine, I’ll just snap left-handed.’ It wasn’t even like, ‘Hey, let’s see if this is going to work.’ It was more like matter-of-fact on his end. I was like, ‘I guess we’re OK, he’s going to snap left-handed.’ It was awesome.”
Mawae: “I recall reading an article from years earlier when I was in college about a center at Michigan State who did the same thing, taught himself to snap left-handed. I recalled that during that time. I was like, ‘I wonder if I can do this.’ That’s where the idea came from. Fast-forward almost 20 years later, and I’m at training camp [as a coaching intern] with the Minnesota Vikings and I’m talking to [current Giants head coach] Pat Shurmur. It turns out he’s the one who was the center who learned how to snap left-handed. We had that conversation and it brought back memories.”
Fabini: “I’ve tried to snap here and there, grade school and college, just to play with it. It’s easy to do when it’s practice and no one’s around. But to snap it and do everything — and to do it with the other hand when you’ve done it with the right hand for 20 years … I couldn’t imagine it. It was Kevin’s will. He was a great teammate, and he would do anything to be on the field.”
Mawae: “During the 7-on-7 periods in practice, I’d go over with Chad Pennington and the quarterbacks and I would just snap left-handed the whole time. I tried to work myself into it where I felt comfortable with it. I talked to [head coach] Herm [Edwards] about it, and I asked if he had a problem with me playing left-handed. He goes, ‘No, as long as you guys don’t mess the snap up, you can do it.’ The following week, it was all clandestine, like, ‘Hey, let’s not let the media know what’s going on.'”
Martin: “If he didn’t play, I wouldn’t have won the rushing title.”
‘Best offensive lineman I ever faced’
Mawae didn’t mess up any snaps. He was flawless at center and wound up throwing a key block on his only play at left guard, creating a hole for Martin on a 1-yard touchdown run. It was vintage Mawae; he pulled and blocked on the run, something he did countless times at center — a rare ability that distinguished him. Martin wound up rushing for 110 yards against a very good Miami defense, which featured defensive end Jason Taylor and middle linebacker Zach Thomas, Mawae’s longtime rival.
At the time, Taylor and Thomas weren’t happy, claiming Mawae used the cast on his right hand as an unfair advantage while blocking.
Mawae: “Zach probably said something [to the officials]. I know for a fact that Jason Taylor whined about it. My comment after the game was, ‘What do you want me to do, play with one hand behind my back? I’m already down one hand.'”
Fabini: “Some of those games against the Dolphins, Kevin pulling and knocking the crap out of Zach Thomas, that kind of sticks out.”
Thomas: “Kevin was the best. He was the best offensive lineman I ever faced. There was no doubt in my mind when I played against Kevin that I was going up against a future Hall of Famer. He was that good. When we game planned against the Jets, he was the first person we talked about. He had that much respect in our room.”
Martin: “I have yet to see a center or an offensive lineman who has the feet Kevin has. Kevin was more like a fullback playing center. Usually, when a lineman is pulling and trying to block a cornerback or defensive end, he’s not fast enough to adjust to you as a runner. But me and Kevin, we were so in sync that Kevin might be 10, 15 yards downfield with me. He had the speed and quickness to keep up.”
Thomas: “My feelings about the Jets are well known, and it takes a lot for me to say something nice about one of those guys; but I know I respected [Mawae], and I feel he respected me. We had some tremendous battles. He deserves to be going to Canton, and I’d like to think I had something to do with that. [Laughs] I look forward to seeing him trade that ugly green in for a gold jacket.”
Martin: “I really liked playing with Kevin because he had that nasty offensive lineman’s mentality. He wasn’t going to back down. I know some people called him dirty, but if you looked back, those were the people who were getting their butt kicked by him. The mentality he brought to the offensive line was just as important as his athletic ability.”
Marrone: “Off the field, shoot, he could babysit your kids. Nicest person in the world. I never heard him curse. In the beginning, we had a curse jar. I tend to curse and that curse jar filled up that first week. I had like $200 or $300 that I had to put in. Finally, I said, ‘Hey, I can’t do this anymore.’ But Kevin never cursed. But he played the game as hard as you could play it. He played to the whistle — or the echo of the whistle, however you want to say it.”
‘Another quarterback on the field’
Led by Mawae and the Jets’ outstanding line, Martin rushed for a career-high 1,697 yards in that 2004 season, edging the Seattle Seahawks‘ Shaun Alexander by one yard for the NFL rushing crown. Martin was 72 yards behind Alexander going into Week 17, but he finished with 153 yards to steal the title. The Jets monitored Alexander’s game on the team plane as they flew back from St. Louis.
Marrone: “Everybody started talking about it, saying, ‘Hey, I think Curtis might have won the title.’ Then we heard the Seattle game went into overtime, and we’re like, ‘Oh, s—, Alexander will be able to get it.’ But then, next thing we know, they tell us Curtis has it. Then it was unofficial. They had to check with Elias Sports. That was something special, there’s no doubt about it.”
Mawae: “When we found out, the offensive linemen were jacked up. We were really pumped.”
Martin: “I don’t know if I would’ve made it to the Hall of Fame without Kevin. People underestimate how important the center is to the offensive line. It’s another quarterback on the field, and Kevin was the best at it.”
Mawae: “During my time in New York, someone in the media asked me if I ever thought about the Hall of Fame. My answer was no, I never played the game for that reason. What it made me do was, I wanted to know who was in the Hall of Fame at my position. I went back and studied it. I wanted to know. If my name was mentioned in the same breath as some of these guys, I wanted to know what the standard was. For the last six or seven years of my career, I had that list in my locker. Not because I wanted to be a Hall of Famer, but because I wanted to know what the standard was. That’s one of the items I gave the Hall of Fame. It’s on display in my locker [in Canton].”